When you want to push back: 5 actions to help you disagree respectfully

Perhaps it is just our stress levels these days but people are either confronting everything because they have decided life is too short to not push back or staying silent and suffering from decisions they don’t align with because they are afraid of some consequence. Even before our current environment, we all felt a little uncertain as to when to push back on a decision or work assignment and when to just be quiet, swallow the jagged pill and move on.

I see a lot of people afraid to speak up or disagree. I have had people come to me after a meeting to air their real thoughts many times. This is what we call "the meeting after the meeting" where genuine thoughts, ideas, and opinions get shared. This is highly unfortunate when this happens because you don’t sort out any conflict openly and healthily to get to the best solution.

If opinions or ideas are not shared, especially if they are counter to what is being presented, we miss out on the opportunity to consider other perspectives, identify items that might be in blind spots, spotlight unconscious biases and get to a good solution.

When this level of passive-aggressiveness happens, it can add time, stress, and unproductive work all to try and make something happen that has someone(s) disagreeing with the direction. I have seen people say they are okay with a decision and then turn around and tell everyone how bad they think the project is. I have seen people even go so far as to sabotage work. This is the pinnacle of passive aggressiveness and I hope you never experience this.

I once had a team member who pushed back all the time on what seemed like every effort. There was never an idea or project they could get behind. They seem to pick apart everything and make lots of statements that put people on the defensive. Now, this is an extreme example of pushing back. This person quickly got a reputation for being very negative. I always thought that was a little unfair but when I tried to coach this person on how others perceived them, they shut down and quit.

I think there is a fine line between being critical in a professional way to help everyone get to the best solution vs. being negative and wanting to burn down every new idea or project. Disagreeing should not necessarily be perceived as rocking the boat and being disruptive. Then again, there are times when we could stand a little disruption. This is how we innovate and create new, awesome things.

I had another situation where a team member agreed with everything and I thought we were on the same page. Then, I had others come to me saying how this person was telling everyone how stupid the idea was. I did not let this go unaddressed. I asked to meet with my team member, stated what I had heard, and asked for their feedback on why they thought it was stupid and what they would recommend instead. I mean, after all, I certainly didn’t have all the answers.

This person was so thrown that I had decided to address this issue head-on, they didn’t know what to say. This person burst into tears in my office and simply stated they were frustrated for not being promoted so they wanted everyone to know they had a better way….everyone but their manager — me. By the way, as a result, we had a good career conversation but this was not a healthy way to get my attention.

Human nature is one where we not only shy away from conflict but sometimes go to extremes to go around it. The problem with this approach is it can result in passive aggressiveness, a waste of time, sometimes a lack of integrity, or even embarrassment as my team member experienced above.

If you believe strongly a decision is wrong, an approach is flawed or an assignment is unfair, say something. You owe it to yourself, your manager, team, and organization to voice your opinion. Good leaders will appreciate people who push back respectfully. Some leaders may appear to only want “yes” people but most want to be challenged to get to the best answer. If they don’t, then I question how good of a leader they are.

Here are some actions to consider when pushing back.

  1. Ask questions.

The quickest way to be labeled as “negative” is to make statements and lob vague responses like: “This is stupid” at new ideas. You may be right but challenging an idea is all in how you do it. Statements don’t allow anyone to respond or explain. They are stoppers and, sometimes, instigators, that immediately create an adversarial situation. The best way to push back and even influence thinking is to ask questions. “Have we ever considered?” “Did we think about it?” “Did we talk to x person to get their thoughts?” “That is interesting. Why do you think this is the best approach?” It is okay to ask pointed questions like “why” because there may be a good reason why but it has not been shared yet. Ask questions respectfully and know when too many questions start to feel interrogative. No one wants to sweat under the spotlight either.

  1. Share your knowledge and experience.

You’re on the payroll for your opinion. So, keeping it to yourself is a little selfish actually. This may not be a popular opinion but if we see something others don’t, we owe it to the team to share. Through questions, examples, and stories of what worked, what didn’t, and why, we can offer a perspective that may or may not have been considered. If you know something could go sideways, you owe it to your team to share what you know. Even if you aren’t sure something will not work and you have reservations, share it anyway. The worst case is your point is irrelevant. Now, good leaders will appreciate the dialogue and not penalize you for being wrong.

  1. Resist the passive path.

We are wired to avoid conflict in some situations. We all tend to gravitate toward fight or flight when faced with a conflict and some of us are all about flight. Resist the urge to be passive. It may feel easier to agree with your manager and air your real thoughts to your peers. As a manager, I can tell you this action is irritating. I would hope we have a strong enough relationship that if you disagree with me, I am open enough to hear it. If you think your manager won’t be open, give them more credit and try it. Passive aggressiveness will only lead to a bad outcome, which can mean everything from an uncomfortable conversation about an idea to a bad conversation about insubordination.

  1. Don’t be overly aggressive.

Walking that fine line, be direct and clear but don’t be that person that burns everything down either. Ask questions to understand the why and then make your case if you believe you are right. You might need data, anecdotes, or survey results to help prove your case. Nothing removes emotion from a case like data. Keep it fact-based and not based on emotions or personal issues. Even if you think something was unfairly assigned to your peer, express your interest in that assignment by focusing on how it will help your growth and the team/organization. Don’t make it all about you but paint a win-win.

  1. Realize you may be wrong.

I will admit that in several situations I was against, I asked questions to uncover the why and soon realized I was wrong and my manager was right. There were other circumstances and objectives I was unaware of. This can happen. This is why asking questions first instead of coming out with fists raised is always the best way to start to push back. This is also the most professional way.

Remember: Disagreeing, in and of itself, isn't rocking the boat. You may be hesitant to share your opinion but you may regret not saying something even more. Nothing can be discussed, explained, or debated if you don’t say something. You owe it to everyone involved to engage in a conversation about the issue.

Be respectful, be in the middle — not too passive and not too aggressive — lead by asking questions and the disagreement will go in a positive direction.